Tar Baby: Chapter 6
Christmas approaches and Margaret and Valerian get on a little better with each other. Ondine is worried that Jadine is going to go off with Son, but Sydney thinks Jadine is only playing with him. He reassures Ondine that Jadine will stay; nothing is going to change.
Christmas Day comes but none of the expected guests show up, not even Michael. When Margaret calls him, he does not answer the phone. No one knows his whereabouts.
The six inhabitants of the house, Valerian, Margaret, Sydney, Ondine, Jadine and Son decide to make the best of it and sit down together for Christmas dinner. During the conversation Valerian reveals that he has fired Gideon and Thérèse for stealing apples. Tensions rise a little as Ondine, who has been irritable from the beginning, protests. Son is also angry at Valerian because of the dismissal of Gideon and Thérèse, and Sydney tells Valerian that he and Ondine should have been informed about the matter. Son then speaks up, challenging Valerian directly, defending Gideon and Thérèse. Angered, Valerian tells Son that he must leave the house, but Son says he will not. As tempers rise, Ondine protests about Margaret taking over her kitchen (it was Margaret who cooked the Christmas dinner). Losing control of herself, she yells, “Keep that bitch out of my kitchen. She’s not fit to enter it” (p. 207). Valerian fires her on the spot, but she does not accept it. Margaret throws a glass and everyone gets to their feet. Ondine rushes up and slaps Margaret’s face. The two women begin to fight before they are separated by Jadine and Son. Ondine yells “You baby killer! I saw you!” at Margaret. She adds, “You cut him up. . . . Made him bleed for you” (p. 208). She says that Margaret stuck pins in her baby’s buttocks and burned him with cigarettes. Sydney leads her away from the table and takes her downstairs. Margaret stares ahead and says that she has always loved her son.
Jadine and Son also leave the table. Jadine wonders whether what Ondine said was true and what will happen now, since she is certain that Ondine and Sydney will be fired. Jadine then realizes the truth: Ondine observed Margaret abusing her child, but did not tell anyone for all these years. This explains for Jadine why Ondine has always hated Margaret.
Jadine and Son agree that they will sleep together that night, but they also agree not to make love. Son believes that he cannot live without Jadine.
In this chapter, all the tensions that have been simmering just below the surface come to a head at the Christmas dinner. Although the explosive quarrel comes as a shock, Morrison carefully prepares the reader for it. As Christmas Day dawns, for example, there is this piece of foreshadowing: “nobody was in his proper place” (p. 194). Ondine is in the bathtub (we would expect her to be in the kitchen); Margaret, the mistress of the house, is in the kitchen, Sydney is in the greenhouse (where we would expect Valerian to be) cutting flowers for the table. Jadine is in the washhouse (where we would expect to find Thérèse), and Valerian is making telephone calls (which we would expect the servants to be doing for him). In other words, everything in this house has gone topsy-turvy, and this foreshadows the quarrel at the dinner table, in which the servants speak out of turn and all the usual relationships are radically upset.
Morrison also uses the technique of foreshadowing in Son’s observation of Margaret as she sunbathes. He sees that “all that was tough and survivalist in her lay in the tips of her fingers, the tips of her toes, her nose tip, her chin tip” (p. 196). He observes that “even the top of her head was fierce,” and although she is “marshmallow soft . . . her tips were terribly sharp” (p. 199). A little after that comes Ondine’s outburst about how Margaret stuck pins in her baby, which gives that phrase “terribly sharp” a new and awful meaning.
From the beginning of the novel, there has been something strange and unexplained about Margaret. The revelation that she abused her child offers an explanation of sorts but also deepens the mystery. Why did she do it?
This chapter also gives further insight into Son’s fierce hatred of what he sees as white culture, how it demeans and despises other cultures and brings no one any happiness. He thinks that one day it will all come crashing down. He also thinks, as he says to Jadine, that blacks and whites are irreconcilable. They should not live together. Yet he and Jadine, who is so much a part of white rather than black culture, seem inexorably to move closer to each other. This raises the question, can Son, who is presented as the authentic black man, form a love relationship with Jadine, who understands nothing of his perspective on the world? Can there be any common ground between them?